Sal Gentile says sometimes his tinnitus sounds like bacon frying in a skillet.
Other times it’s hissing – like air out of a popped tire. Or it can sound like conveyor belts, or rough ocean waves.
On his worst days, Gentile says, it’s a combination of these things – a cacophony of sounds within his head.
“I was scared. I was devastated. I had no idea what was going on,” he says.
Tinnitus is the phantom perception of a sound that does not exist in the outside world.
Gentile was out for his birthday at a noisy restaurant more than one year ago, when he says he first started hearing strange noises.
“When I came home, I had all these sounds coming out of my ear,” he says.
He soon learned his condition wasn’t uncommon. Experts say 15 percent of the population has some sort of tinnitus.
That’s 60 million people in the U.S. alone, according to Dr. K. Paul Boyev, associate professor at the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of South Florida.
He says there are two types of tinnitus, with different causes.
“It can be sounds that are created by vascular structures such as blood moving through blood vessels,” he says.
“Then there are sounds that originate usually in your nervous system, usually in your auditory pathways that process sound.”
Gentile suffers from the latter. He thinks his tinnitus was most likely caused by hearing loss.
Other causes are neurological damage — from loud noises –or certain medications.
Dr. Boyev says it’s extremely common in veterans.
“In fact, the number one and number two disability compensations for veterans are tinnitus and hearing loss,” Boyey said.
It costs upwards of $ 1 billion a year in compensation for the VA.
“Military are sitting ducks in a lot of ways for noise induced hearing loss,” Boyev says. “It’s a very noisy job, there’s explosions.”
Gentile, a veteran, copes with his tinnitus by listening to white noise while at the gym.
“The sound is very soothing to me,” he said.
He avoids noisy places and he never sleeps in silence. He has a sound machine he uses every night.
“There’s a variety of eight different sounds on it, everything from oceans, to rainforests and waterfalls,” he said.
Realizing his tactics could work for other suffering from tinnitus, Gentile recently started a meet up group on the University of South Florida Campus.
He says, so far it’s been a success –with the number of people growing with every meeting.
“I think part of the problem is, people know there’s no cure for it, and they don’t know where to go, so they just live with it as best as they can,” he said.
Living with tinnitus is something Gentile says, he’s mastered.
“I was able to, over one year, to just put the noise to the side of my brain and find my own way of healing myself.”
He hopes everyone at the meet up group will be able to do too.
For more information, check out the American Tinnitus Association.